SCANDINAVIAN 60: Heroic Legends of the North

TuTh 2-3:30 , 242 Dwinelle. Instructor: Kate Heslop

Units: 4

L&S Breadth: Arts & Literature

Scandinavian 60 is a requirement for the five major concentrations in Scandinavian.

What is a hero? What use were stories about heroes to the societies that produced them? What is the relationship between heroes and gods (pagan and Christian)? Does heroic narrative preserve memories of historical events? Can monsters or women be heroes? How do heroes die, and why do their stories enjoy such a long – if not altogether blameless – afterlife?

Such questions guide our engagement in this course with the heroic narratives of the premodern North (c. 800-1300). This was a period of radical cultural, social and religious change in Scandinavia, from the pagan warrior societies of the Viking Age to the Christian, literate, centralized world of the Middle Ages. The course centers on the Poetic Edda, a unique medieval collection of mythological and heroic poetry whose roots reach into the Viking Age, and perhaps still further back. But we will also explore other manifestations of the northern fascination with heroes, covering topics such as the oral transmission of heroic narrative; heroes in visual culture (runestones, sculpture, jewellery); Latin-speaking Norse heroes in Saxo grammaticus’ Gesta danorum (History of the Danes); how the heroic ethos plays out in more realistic saga genres; and the late medieval flowering of heroic narrative in the romances. A look at the post-medieval reception of heroic legend, for example in contemporary media (e.g. the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, Game of Thrones, video games) and political discourse, rounds off the course.


The saga of Grettir the strong, trans. by Bernard Scudder (Penguin, 2005). ISBN 978-0140447736.

The Poetic Edda, trans. by Carolyne Larrington, revised edition (OUP: 2014). ISBN 978-0199675340.

The Saga of the Volsungs, trans. by Jesse Byock (Penguin: 2000). ISBN 978-0140447385.

The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok, trans. by Ben Waggoner (Troth: 2009). ISBN 978-0578021386.

Additional texts will be made available in a Course Reader.

Course aims:

  • overview of Scandinavian heroic legend and in-depth knowledge of its two key genres, eddic poetry and the saga;
  • acquaintance with the material, historical and cultural contexts of Scandinavian heroic legend, both in Viking and medieval Scandinavia and as a wider European phenomenon;
  • skills in reading and interpreting medieval texts.

Calculation of final grade
Class participation: 10%
Midterm: 10%
Term paper draft (min. 2 pages): 10%
Term paper: 40%
Final exam: 30%

Workload comprises:

brief in-class presentations of set readings; a midterm test (short answer questions plus text analysis); a term paper (5-6 pages on a set question) preceded by a 2-page graded draft; and a final exam (text analysis plus essay questions).

Prerequisites: none.  The course and readings are in English.